Monster cookers lead the way as man explores the new frontier of the outdoor room
I am watching a very un-barbecue scene unfold. Gathered here on a patio overlooking Arch Creek on the Miami campus of Johnson & Wales culinary college, a couple dozen student cooks are wrapped in chef's coats, listening intently to Michael Moskwa, the dean of culinary education, give a seminar on outdoor grilling. On the menu are leg of lamb, filet mignon, pizza and lobster. Johnson & Wales? Lobster? Chef's coats? When did outdoor cooking become so upscale?
What happened to burgers and dogs charred to a deathly pallor over charcoal briquettes? And what of those behemoth, gleaming Vieluxe grills that the seminar is designed to show off?
This is not kettle grills and A1 steak sauce. This is the refined face of outdoor cooking as it enters the twenty-first century. In a world where expenditures on home improvement have increased 130 percent in the past 10 years, pop culture mavens see the outdoor kitchen as the new frontier. Homeowners bent on expanding their entertainment space are creating exterior rooms that bring amenities such as refrigeration and sound systems to the patio or deck. High-end grills, whether built-in or free-standing, are proving to be the centerpiece of the movement. For all of these reasons, outdoor cooking has become a worthy subject for an institution of higher culinary learning.
Here, as we stoke our Vieluxe 44s on a seashell-concrete com-posite floor, under a ceiling of date-tree leaves, we wouldn't be more lords of the manor were these kitchens inside a castle.
The fastest-growing segment of the grill market (25 percent over the last five years) is the luxury end, which starts at a thousand and easily climbs up to eight. Naturally, no real spending limits exist, especially when you start to trick out patios with designer bases for built-in grills.
Moskwa points out that the resources of commercial grade manufacturers of kitchen appliances are being used to create sublime cooking equipment for the outdoors. "These guys have done their research," he says. "It's always interesting to see how different companies tackle problems." Grill manufacturers such as Dynamic Cooking Systems (DCS), Viking and Wolf have long been known for their indoors expertise. Wolf, the cooking arm of the company that makes Sub-Zero refrigerators, was known for its innovations in commercial kitchens before it entered the consumer market in 1988. Vieluxe is the ultraluxury division of Weber-Stephens, which makes the highly regarded Weber grill. While Moskwa contends that the old grill joke about men responding to primal urges to cook with fire still applies, he says people are now more willing to invest in sophisticated equipment.
Dave Becker, vice president of product management at Viking, says that some of his customers are those who make trips to Europe or buy luxury cars -- that is, when they're not exploring great outdoor kitchens. Others are less affluent, but still want great equipment. Viking caters to both, even maintaining a barbecuing team for research purposes.
Viking is a company that is most pointedly moving toward the ideal of the outdoor kitchen; some of its products for the patio include warming drawers, woks, refrigerators and beverage centers. Becker says to expect product development to follow those lines. KitchenAid, another venerable indoor appliance company, is, in its own words, "removing the walls between indoor and outdoor entertaining," with products like bar carts, sinks, refrigerators and even automatic ice makers. With all this in the glitter of stainless steel, nary a reason remains to go back inside.
Shaun Chinsky, Vieluxe's product manager, says that the cheap grill market benefited for many years from low market expectations. "You don't know what you don't know." His company, as well as its many competitors in the high-end grill market, intends to change that.
From my own point of view as author of Barbecue America, a book that chronicles a few delicious seasons spent stalking the country's competitive smoke-cooking circuit, luxury grilling is still an odd phenomenon. The barbecue tour world proffers very serious cooking, but is a homespun scene.
This fare is too high-toned for the competitive "Q" tour. Theirs is the heritage of a cuisine of need. Originally, you barbecued to tenderize tougher cuts in a smoke bath. The beef barbecued at competitions is brisket, not filet mignon. "Q" style sheep meat is mutton, not leg of lamb. And certainly, lobster is not on the menu at all.
But mostly, it's the grills. These big, shining, versatile, stainless-steel cookers would be as out of place at a barbecue contest as pearls at a swap meet. Barbecue teams use cheap kettle smokers or they fashion their own magnificent monstrosities. They cut an oil drum in half from top to bottom and put hinges and a smokestack on it. Or, better yet, they make their grills out of something completely absurd. I've seen smoking chambers fashioned from a coffin (a team of undertakers), refrigerator (dubbed a Ribidaire), airplanes and even a school bus. To them, high-end smokers mean a huge replica of a Jack Daniel's bottle, a full-scale locomotive grill or a stagecoach smoker, but I've never seen anything like these store-bought beauties at a "Q" meet.
People have cooked outdoors since time began. But when chimneys and ovens were invented, most cooks moved indoors -- if they had the luxury of a house -- and forgot the old days.
It was in America that the art of outdoor cooking was revived. Spanish conquistadors took a break from their regimen of pillaging and religious converting to notice the savory aroma that came from meat cooking on native grills made of green sticks that the Taino Indians called a babracot. The Spanish mispronounced it barbracoa and it became barbecue in English. At least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That reference dismisses as absurd conjecture that the term's root is barbe a queue, French for "beard to tail." That etymology makes sense, however, when you consider that's how you cook whole hog, a barbecue classic. While the barbecuing skills of the editors of the OED may be suspect, they have a point. The French colonists had their own word for such grills -- boucan -- and those who cooked on them were boucaniers. Presumably, a group of such chefs operating in the islands discovered it was easier to just rob the Spanish ships to which they had been selling meat, and that is how we gained the word buccaneer.
Barbecue migrated to what is now the southeastern United States and Texas, and that is where the word took on multiple meanings: a verb, a noun, an adjective, a culinary art form, a social gathering and a way of life. In a sense, barbecue is the gastronomic equivalent of jazz, an American original. Like Forrest Gump, it appeared at a slew of historic milestones. George Washington mentioned barbecue in his diary. Scarlett O'Hara meets Rhett Butler at a barbecue in the novel Gone With the Wind. The whiff of smoking meat was used to get voters to political rallies. Lyndon Johnson threw legendary barbecues at the LBJ ranch in Texas Hill Country. Jimmy Carter brought it to the White House. Ronald Reagan had it served at his 1983 Economic Summit. Bob Kerrey and Al Gore have competed in the Memphis in May barbecue contest, the world's largest.
While regional cuisine is the current rage in fancy restaurants, barbecue has always been local. Barbecuers traditionally cooked what they raised and smoked with the wood available. Hence barbecue in Tennessee is pig meat smoked with hickory and in Texas it's beef brisket tenderized with mesquite. Real chauvinists will tell you that their regional meat and wood predilections define barbecue. It gets even more arcane: residents of the eastern Carolinas would have it that those in the west are heretics because they base their barbecue sauce on tomatoes, not vinegar.
Whatever the condiments, barbecue wasn't convenient for the backyard leisure set until well into the twentieth century. Originally, it involved digging a pit, chopping down trees, burning them into charcoal overnight and turning huge hunks of meat on a spit. This work often fell to slaves. Then Henry Ford changed all this with a development that was just as revolutionary for the patio set as his introduction of affordable automobiles. He was looking for a way to use all the wasted chunks and sawdust that were byproducts of making Model Ts and found it in charcoal briquettes, which are essentially made from wood burned with very little oxygen and pressed into shape. Ford's waste was marketed as Kingsford charcoal and sold only at dealerships until the 1950s. The convenience of store-bought charcoal set off a boom in cheap, unsophisticated backyard grills, and men across America became self-styled pit masters.
Until then barbecue had meant smoking low and slow, but the term morphed to include hamburgers burnt over hot charcoal by some joker in a "kiss-me-I'm-the-chef" apron -- a decided denigration of the art.
Change came with the introduction of inexpensive gas grills in the early 1980s. Ease of use was the immediate dividend. Gas switches on immediately and heats quickly to a temperature suitable for searing steaks. Early gas grills, while unsophisticated, still offered better temperature control. A knob set the heat and usually at least two zones could be established, allowing many types of food to be cooked at once. Gone were processed charcoal and (yuck!) lighter fluid, in were packaged wood chips and chunks that allowed backyard cookers to approximate the taste of smoked meat.
Still, cheap grills were owner-assembled (ouch!), unattractive and limited in controllability, size, durability, and bells and whistles. Not really the stuff of backyard dreams.
Enter stainless steel. Stratospheric levels of outdoor cooking are most often reached in the gleam of chromium alloys. Not only does stainless steel make a beautiful statement on your patio, it is virtually impervious to rust, the scourge of cooking in the elements. Highly durable, it needs almost no maintenance. Forget to put the cover on before a rainstorm? It doesn't matter. You might even forgo the tarp and let its luster shine for the neighbors to see. A great grill is also fully enclosed, so it provides dry storage space and keeps animals away from gas tanks. (For some bizarre reason of their own, critters like raccoons like to chew through gas hoses, making for a rude awakening when you go to fire up a grill that has leaked all its propane.)
Stainless is the way to go when you've decided you want to own a grill for life. Second only to stainless are the baked-on, porcelain enamel finishes you see on such grills as Weber and Vermont Casting. But finish is only part of the story. You want a thick-gauge metal that will hold in heat and allow you to roast meat as well as grill it. (The industry standard is 304-grade steel in at least 18 gauge.) Heft the cover on a well-built grill and you'll immediately feel the difference between it and a bargain model.
Size is another overarching trend. Consider the Vieluxe 56. So named for its width in inches, it contains six burners. Huge, yes, but by no means the biggest burner out there. Crown Verity makes a grill that is 72 inches wide and has 10 burners. Talk about whole hog! You could broil a man on one of those things. That's an extreme, but the four-foot-wide range is rapidly becoming fairly standard in high-end grills, and with good reason. Viking offers a 53-inch grill, Ducane a 52, Fire Magic a 50, Wolf a 48 (with as many as eight burners), DCS a 48, KitchenAid a 48 and Altima a 48, because at that size you can effectively maintain different cooking zones simultaneously. You're searing a steak on one end and roasting a chicken on the other, while smoking vegetables on the top rack.
Keep in mind when comparing sizes that many grill makers include multiple racks when they calculate square-inch stats, so it is more helpful to learn the width and the depth.
Another function of size is BTUs -- the volume of heat a grill puts out. Really big grills now pump far in excess of 50,000. This statistic can be misleading as it doesn't necessarily translate to temperature -- or heat intensity. A big grill with multiple burners may put out more BTUs, but heat intensity is what it takes to make a masterful steak. For this a grill needs to reach temperatures of 600 degrees in a hurry. Good grill dealers will sometimes let you take a test drive to see how they perform.
That test requires a good thermometer. The cheap models rarely offer one. The ones they do provide likely register indistinct margins: low, medium, high and aren't well placed. An accurate thermometer -- Taylor is a good name -- should be attached to the middle of the cooking box and have a large enough face to read the numbers within a few degrees of accuracy. My current beef is that even most better grills don't attach more than one thermometer to indicate where heat pockets reside. In the competitive barbecue world this is common practice, especially on oversized equipment that likely cooks in different heat zones. With bigger and bigger high-end gas grills, it only makes sense to have a temperature readout in a few different spots.
The best thermometer in the world won't help if you can't set the temperature you want. This is a function of gas control, which resides in the control knobs. You need to adjust most grills to learn how hot they get at what setting (don't trust temperature settings marked on knobs). But sturdy brass controls that operate smoothly and deliver the same amount of fuel at the same setting every time will help you figure that out fast. Turn the knobs on an ultra-premium grill such as Viking, Wolf or Vieluxe, even on less expensive premiums like Weber, and you'll immediately feel what it's like to be able to dial it in.
The burners should also be made of heavy-duty cast iron or stainless steel. Top grills have multiple burners with separate controls for each. Cheap grills have one tiny burner with one or two controls. I prefer that the burners be situated from front to back of the grill rather than horizontally as that configuration gives greater zone control.
The rubber meets the road on the cooking grate. The many schools of thought are forever bickering, but they all agree that heavy-duty is a must. Think of what happens to the grids on inexpensive charcoal and gas grills. They burn out, break, rust out and become impossible to clean. Culinary reasoning begs for solid grates. They hold the heat better and this is the function that allows you to sear in food's goodness, according to Moskwa. Searing creates carmelization, which adds flavor and at the same time prevents moisture, in the form of rich juices, from escaping. Not only that, he adds, a good thick grate protects meat and especially delicate fish from tearing when flipped and won't cut into the food. One clever wrinkle on grate construction comes from DCS, which makes a grid from trough-shaped tubes. The grates turn over, allowing the cook to choose between the rounded side for fish or the sharper edges for meat.
The great grate debate comes when choosing the material. If you've wrestled with rusty grates that are falling apart and become hard to clean, chances are they are made of the chrome-plated steel that is the hallmark of the cheap grill. Cast iron retains heat best, but is a maintenance problem when it comes to cleanup and preservation. Second in heat retention is the stainless-steel grill (found on the Vieluxe grills), which scrubs up more easily with a steel brush. Porcelain-coated cast-iron grates (such as those found on Wolf and Viking models) are the easiest to clean, but they need a more delicate touch as the coating will scratch over time. The grate issue will forever be disputed. Some chefs claim that porcelain doesn't retain heat well, while others say that the same surface provides for an easier release of meat from a hot grill.
On a large grill, it is good to have several small grates as opposed to one large one as the weight of heavy-duty metal makes it unwieldy to clean up.
After years of dealing with lava rocks or ceramic briquettes, outdoor chefs are turning to systems that deal with grease drippings better. In older grills, grease pooled on the heating medium and tended to flare up, making for grease fires, hot spots and uneven cooking. Today's best grills typically shroud the burner in some kind of steel that either funnels the grease away or causes it to vaporize. Moskwa says that vaporized grease is where much of the flavor comes from in outdoor cooking (assuming you are smoking with wood).
To cut down on grease fires, check to see that grease funnels easily from under the grill and that it collects in a drip pan that can be emptied easily without spilling.
Probably the most substantive development in outdoor cooking in recent years has been the introduction of infrared, or radiant, heat in grills. This new wrinkle came by way of a company called Thermal Engineering Corp. (TEC) and its president, Bill Best, who invented a heat-transfer processes for drying paper and automobile paint. More than 20 years ago, Best set out to use wasted stainless-steel scraps from around his plant to build himself a grill using a converted space heater. Working on the same principle as radiant heaters, the infrared method heats meat directly rather than warming air around it. Thus, according to Best, meat cooks faster and with less drying. Grilled meat has a stagnant layer of molecules on its surface that heat must penetrate. Infrared heat does that easily without upsetting the boundary layer where much flavor resides or drying the food's juices.
TEC began supplying equipment to commercial restaurants such as Burger King and Shula's Steak Houses. Because the patent recently ran out, Burger King is no longer its customer and the technology has begun showing up in competing outdoor grills -- most notably in the form of infrared rotisseries attached to the back of grills. This is a significant improvement because grease does not drip on the heating element and flare up.